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  • Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England
  • Martha W. Driver
Jessica Brantley . Reading in the Wilderness: Private Devotion and Public Performance in Late Medieval England. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007. xviii + 463 pp. + 8 color pls. index. append. illus. bibl. $45. ISBN: 978-0-226-07132-9.

This volume is an in-depth exploration of the Carthusian Miscellany (British Library MS Additional 37049), a fifteenth-century English manuscript of texts and drawings known to medieval scholars mainly through its facsimile produced by James Hogg in 1981. Unique in style, the Additional manuscript presents many conundrums concerning its making and early provenance, along with difficulties of interpretation. Initially, this reviewer hoped for a subtle reading of linked texts and pictures in the style of the great Avril Henry, who clarified the complex text and image relationships of the Biblia Pauperum and the Speculum Humanae Salvationis in her editions of the 1980s, but this did not quite turn out to be the case. (Though both of these late medieval texts are more or less contemporary with the Carthusian Miscellany and employ similar strategies, neither is discussed at any length here; there are passing references, however, to the Beauchamp Pageants, Petrus Christus, Jan van Eyck, and even to William Blake.)

Employing a range of contemporary critical methods, Brantley cites Judith Butler, Pierre Bourdieu, and W. J. T. Mitchell, among others, to elucidate the texts, or "imagetexts" (a term coined by Mitchell to describe film and photographic essays), in the Carthusian Miscellany. She argues, "The range of bibliographic [End Page 1396] performances in this miscellany encompasses visual and verbal performances both theoretical and concrete, and constructs the category of devotional performance in its broadest terms" (16). She further describes the manuscript as an unperformed play, a pageant, a florilegium, and as "a variety of closet drama" (3). Though Brantley's book purports to recover the experience of the fifteenth-century reader of the manuscript as devotional performance (an interesting speculative exercise), it more convincingly presents a whole range of contemporary thinking about medieval readers and reading, images, text and performance, as well as about late medieval affective piety. Yet with all this intellectual and theoretical force brought to bear upon it, the Carthusian Miscellany continues to resist full explanation.

The Miscellany is associated with the Carthusians who were devoted to the practice of silence and who "sought to institute an exceptionally strict monastic isolation" (33); Carthusians were allowed books in their cells, and they made books ("preaching with their hands" ). Figures in Carthusian habit appear on several folios along with at least one clearly labeled depiction of Richard Rolle, whom Brantley calls "perhaps the dominant mystical figure of the fourteenth century" (136). The author negotiates her terrain with some care, but it is not always clear, at least to this reviewer, just who some of these figures that appear alongside the Middle English texts are meant to represent. Are the images self-reflexive, made by the maker or compiler of the manuscript to illustrate himself? Are these portraits of its scribe? Its artist (or artists)? Possibly a patron? Brantley attempts to make the case that these are mainly generic portraits of the (imagined) reader of the manuscript, commenting: "Another kind of voice is more powerfully represented in this manuscript: the voice of its readers . . . the reader himself is pictured in the manuscript, in both general and specific forms, and his voice participates in, or even creates, the devotional dynamic it represents" (151). In most late medieval depictions, an anonymous figure with a speech scroll shown at a holy scene is a patron rather than a representation of a general reader (or in some limited cases the artist, scribe or author of the text), and in the context of the study of this odd and oddly compelling manuscript Brantley's reading is interesting and provocative.

The book provides much helpful information on the Carthusian order culled from a variety of sources, materials on virtue and vice trees (in a discussion of the Desert of Religion, the central text of the manuscript), very interesting information on the cult and liturgical rites surrounding the Holy Name and...


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Archived 2009
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